A 21st Century Imperative 4: A deep understanding of pedagogy is what gives teaching its ‘professional’ status

The trouble with schools is that they continue to encourage teachers to think they have the monopoly on information.   This statement, originally coined by Bob Pearlman (www.bobpearlman.org ) inspired me to think differently about our curriculum offer and the nature of our profession. 

I’ve described in earlier blogs how the exciting developments in education, happening around the mid to late 2000’s and earlier this decade, were finally turning us around as a profession.  There was a growth in new learning methodologies inspired by the digital age and although there were some spectacular failures, there was a forward-thinking momentum and real progress was being made.  This was all quickly and efficiently stamped upon by Mr Gove and his accomplices (can you hear the bitterness in my voice?), to be replaced by traditional methods such as instructional learning and teaching to the test.  This was and still is, contrary to what practically every employer wants from a young person.  Just look up the countless quotes by employers out there.   It makes me weep to think about it.

Why are we so unconsciously obsessed as a profession with prioritising the acquisition of subject knowledge?   Putting aside the fact that it’s in the profession’s DNA and supported by the traditional subject driven universities, I think there is a simple answer: ‘it’s easy’.  

All of the component parts that go towards success in the current UK exam system are far easier to organise, deliver, assess and measure success.  For example:

  • Put together all the key areas of knowledge that needs to be learned for your subject (Already handily prescribed by Government)
  • Turn the skills you need to handle some of that knowledge into key facts you need to know, if you are going to master that skill (a little bit harder)
  • Put your desks in straight rows – So that everyone is facing you and the board, lessening the chance of distraction by others
  • Deliver the facts, assess/test, then repeat the process a few times with the same facts.   (Nice and easy – after all, they are either right or wrong)
  • Set an exam or better still the government sets it for you and then compare everyone’s memory skills.  

In short – planning is easier; organisation of classes and lesson structure is a straightforward process; behaviour is far easier to control; marking and assessment is straightforward; quality assurance, accountability, and standards are all easier to monitor; summative exams are easier to construct; and finally placing everyone onto a specified stage on an educational/career ladder makes it all too easy to process each young person who comes out the other end of the system post-16.

There are some subject exceptions; especially those with a strong skill base.  From my own observations over the years, English as a subject (Not English Literature) struggles with this – it’s a skills-based subject, but full of nuances and most student answers that are open to interpretation (even to some extent grammar).    All in all apart from the fact that we don’t hit our students any longer and we have some technology with interactive whiteboards instead of blackboards, not much has changed in schools in the last 150 years.  We have a system which puts the needs of those delivering it first before those of the young person.

Anyway, that’s enough of the rant.   Up until recently, in the eyes of students: teachers have been the font of all knowledge.  They have been the subject experts and the person to ask, when stuck.  However, there’s no getting away from it, technology is changing all that and is challenging our profession to its core.   Sugata Mitra’s ‘Schools in the Cloud’ and the Khan Academy are two very public examples.   The everyday use of devices in schools reinforces this and yet the profession is still, on the whole, sticking its head in the sand and carrying on, business as usual.   Dr Ian Pearson[1] a futurologist, inventor and public speaker estimates that “if you are under 20 then you are likely to live forever (if you choose)”.  Check out his TEDx talk where he asks us to consider the rapid advancement of cybernetics and the exponential rate that computer processing power is increasing.   At some point (many refer to this as the year of singularity – 2043) it’s likely we will be able to download our conscience into a robot.  Even if we don’t progress this far so quickly, this does nevertheless represent a huge challenge to the teaching profession.  If we want our children to flourish is it right that we carry on, educating as we are, assuming nothing will change in relation to how we learn new skills and gather/store/retrieve information.

So, what is the alternative and why aren’t we changing our practices? Two answers this time: firstly, it’s complex and secondly its certainly not easy.  Here are some of the curricular and pedagogical areas we have to overcome and practices we have to develop if we are to take our profession well and truly into the 21st Century and remain a highly regarded profession:

  • Firstly, we have to consider the first three imperatives I’ve written about in previous blogs.  We need to create a sense of belonging.  Our curriculum therefore needs to be relevant, current and forward looking.  (This doesn’t discount any historical perspective put on things).  Our practices need to recognise the way young people are now learning and the resultant autonomy they crave.  The setting for learning needs to be safe and inclusive (no change there), but also accepting of challenge and debate (There’s nothing wrong with a bit of Socratic debate to stimulate critical thinking).  Ignore all of this and we’ll never stem the steady flow towards home schooling. 
  • Is our subject based curriculum still relevant in its current form?  Why do we continue to teach in separate knowledge based silos, when the world certainly doesn’t operate in this way?
  • The second and third imperative considered the parity we give to all aspects of a child’s development and the acceptance that they will make mistakes, but they are part of the learning process.   Therefore, we need to develop more than skills, competencies or knowledge.   Far too often these are developed in a tick box fashion.  Once the child has shown they have accomplished something, the metaphorical box is ticked and on we move on to the next thing.  Instead the development of good habits of learning are essential.
  • These habits need to enable the young person to access, criticise use and store information/knowledge effectively.   They also help to develop skills which are sustainable.
  • We need to create the space in our curriculum to develop these habits.  This could be in relation to the numbers of students we have in front of us, or the time required to embed habits. This will require us as teachers to become more collaborative with each other.  For example: Using each other’s strengths to deliver difficult concepts; having one teacher facilitate learning with larger group of students while another takes out small groups to assess or provide more depth.
  • Learning needs to become more democratic, young people should be given the opportunity to take more control of their learning and the paths they wish to pursue.  This will require us to have far more flexible timetables and possibly times of day. 
  • Our final assessment of student progress and/or achievements will have to recognise that final exams in most cases will become an outmoded form of assessment.   However, assessment will still need to exist, and we will have to ensure that whatever form this takes, it will have to be reliable and consistent.  (The next step up in the education or employment ladder will always need to know the abilities of the individual they are taking on).
  • We need to be prepared to accept that young people will make mistakes and errors of judgement initially.  For example, they won’t meet deadlines, they will be distracted, they won’t work collaboratively or listen with empathy, they won’t show resilience and will be forever asking for help, but . . . THIS IS PART OF WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO DEVELOP in our students. 
  • We will have to learn how to be proactive with regards to helping students avoid these mistakes and manage things effectively when things go wrong, without curbing their freedom.    (That’s not to say there won’t be consequences – as long as they are within a learning context).
  • We need to be prepared to take a leap of faith.   Enable our students to become literate & numerate and to possess good habits of learning and they will fly.  

In my next blog I’ll publish Part 2 to this imperative and give my vision for how this might actually look in a school.   Top marks to those of you who have read this far.  Thanks!

[1] Dr Pearson’s blog can be found at https://timeguide.wordpress.com/

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